Waterloo Region Leads the Way in Brownfields Redevelopment
Waterloo Region - In June of 2005, the Regional Municipality of Waterloo and the Waterloo Region Home Builders’ Association co-sponsored a major conference on “Reurbanization: Seizing Opportunity in Urban Development”. Since then, work has accelerated to take advantage of shifts in housing demand, demographics, and new government planning frameworks. There has been a new interest in the redevelopment of brownfield sites in Kitchener, Waterloo, Cambridge and elsewhere especially in light of recent Provincial requirements to provide 40% of all new development within our existing built boundaries by 2015.
Exciting, innovative projects have been developer-initiated and market-driven. They have benefited from some positive public policies and from financial support to help overcome the high costs of site clean-up.
A key reference document in pursuing new opportunities is a “Reurbanization Market Analysis” undertaken in 2005 which was based on a two-part, statistically significant survey. One part covered residents of “reurbanization” projects already built in the downtown areas of the region. In brief, high satisfaction levels were found. Most of those surveyed were as satisfied as residents of conventional homes with their dwelling unit. They were only slightly less satisfied than residents of other areas of the region when asked about their surrounding neighbourhood. Overall, satisfaction levels were at greater than 90% for all neighbourhoods and all types of dwelling.
The recent Seagram, Kaufman, Eaton, Mansion and Bauer Loft development projects in Kitchener and Waterloo, to name a few, are also attracting new singles in their 40s and empty-nesters.
Turning to the population currently living outside of reurbanization neighbourhoods, the 2005 survey indicated that some 70% population would consider moving to a reurbanization area. A similar proportion also indicated an interest in moving to a unit other than a single-detached home.
Additional redevelopment projects undertaken over the past five years in our region beyond those mentioned above include: The Barrel Yards; Bridgeport Lofts; Wellington Square Townhouses; Arrow Factory; and Waterscape. Most involved some form of brownfield clean-up.
What have we learned as a result of our experience with brownfield redevelopment projects? First of all, the market is showing clear signs of becoming more accepting of alternate housing forms. However, regulations, government policy tools and the political stamina needed to support change in the face of public opposition needs to be bolstered as well. In terms of housing form, it is clear to us that a range of opportunities exists it does not all have be high-rise buildings. First and foremost, we have learned that the public sector authorities need to provide support early to break down barriers to development if they really want this type of development to proceed on a widespread basis.
Municipal initiatives are needed to re-designate and rezone properties identified for redevelopment, eliminating the huge perceived “risk” associated with public and political uncertainty for the ultimate developer of a site. Density bonusing and zoning-relief policies are needed to positively assist brownfield development. Municipalities should accept Risk Assessment-qualified property as parkland. Municipal Councilors should be prepared to attend informal neighbourhood meetings to help the public to understand political commitment to redevelop brownfield sites.
Where are we heading? I believe the future will see action on more complicated sites, with a risk assessment approach frequently becoming the only viable solution. I am hopeful that public authorities can reduce industry uncertainty associated with changing standards and modeling requirements. At present, development approval processes are behind market needs too slow and too much uncertainty.
Significant progress has been made over the past few years, but brownfields need to be a true policy priority, with significant improvements to liability solutions. Policy and financial initiatives need to be applied city-wide. While developers must be prepared to increase the amount of public consultation, politicians need to “walk the talk” when it comes time to making decisions in favour of infill projects. Municipal departments need to work together to support alternate standards required by infill projects. The number and variety of successful developments in our region shows that the market is ready to roll… we just need the full scope of public-private cooperation arrangements to make further progress!
WRHBA is actively involved in all facets of the new home construction and residential renovation industries. It is a voluntary association whose primary goal is to positively impact the communities where their members and their customers live, work and play. Through ongoing representation to municipal government, media relations and consumer education, they address important issues head on and have a strong presence that benefits members and contributes to housing affordability and the well-being of communities in the Region of Waterloo.